Wheat and Chaff


Alan Jacobs speculates on what it means (or doesn’t, as the case may be) to be a conservative:

I am not and never have been a Republican. I feel roughly as alienated from that party as I do from the Democratic Party. I hold a number of political views that strong-minded Republicans typically find appalling: I think racism is one of the greatest problems in American society today; I am not convinced that austerity programs are helpful in addressing our economic condition; I am absolutely convinced that what many Republicans call free-market capitalism is in fact crony capitalism, calculated to favor the extremely wealthy and immensely powerful multinational corporations; I think that for all of the flaws of Obamacare, it was at least an attempt to solve a drastically unjust and often morally corrupt network of medical care in this country; I dislike military adventurism, and believe that our various attempts at nation-building over the past decade were miscalculated from the outset.

So is there any sense in which I might plausibly be called a conservative? I don’t really know; I’ll leave that to others to decide. It doesn’t really matter to me whether I fit into any pre-existing political or intellectual categories. I can only say this: that I do have three overarching political commitments (or beliefs, or convictions) that are more important to me than any others.

The first is that I strive to be a consistently pro-life Christian. I am aware that many people believe that the whole notion of a “consistent pro-life ethic” is a way for liberal Christians to minimize the evil of abortion by wrapping it in a whole series of other issues, and that may well be true for many, but I do believe that there is such a thing as a consistently pro-life position and that that position involves an absolute commitment to the unborn and also to the weak, the sick, the elderly, the mentally ill, and all the others who find themselves at the margins of our society, generally unloved and uncared for. My models in this quest are the Cappadocian fathers of the Church.

One might hope that in trying to describe what a conservative is that something like the pro-life movement, that signature set of social politics in the late 2oth century which acts as a hinge to distinguish conservatives from the rest of the world, would deserve the sort of healthy skepticism Jacobs affords hyper-capitalistic economics and expansive militarism.

Some are trying to connect the dots between Calvinism and the formation of our rights-heavy republic. The project seems shaky, given how Calvin himself wasn’t particularly wild about notions of civil rebellion and disobedience. But there might be something to be said for how Calvinism bears on what it means to be conservative when it comes to a movement that tends to exalt that highest good provisional life affords, life itself, and portrays the unborn as angelic cherubim. Calvinism says that human beings are conceived in sin and that we are born children of wrath (Heidelberg Catechism QA 7).

It could be that another test of conservatism is to take the same measure of exception to “an absolute commitment to the unborn” as to the sweeping allegiance to something like nation-building and fat-cat capitalism. It may be more reflective of a modern tendency to exalt youth over age to such an extent that that segment of the human population is said to be deserving (insert Calvinist squirm) of a zealous and absolutist protection that other segments of the human population simply aren’t. Conservative Calvinists know that death is a reality. Sometimes people die, and that as a result of disease, age, violence, and even public policy. This isn’t at all to undermine the virtues of pro-lifery, namely that the strong and powerful have a duty to look out for their weak and powerless neighbors, but it is to wonder why there isn’t more effort on the parts of those who conceive themselves as conservative to moderate at least the rhetoric or dial down absolutist claims about life. And if it’s the Bible we want to bring to bear on the public square and conversation then Jesus’ words in Luke 14 about the cost of discipleship might have just as much, if not more to say about life as Psalm 134:

Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

This entry was posted in Alan Jacobs, American Conservative, Calvinism, Culture, Culture War, Culture-of-life, Pro-life movement. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Wheat and Chaff

  1. Zrim,

    I agree that it’s difficult to draw a straight line between Calvin and the American constitutional republic but there are connections. They zig and zag but they exist. There are pre-Reformation roots in some threads of medieval constitutionalism and conciliarism. Althusius is a point of contact. He was an orthodox Calvinist and he theorized about civil life in a way that the American founders were able to understand and appropriate.

  2. RubeRad says:

    Cut the dude some slack. We all know that you can’t abide anybody that makes abortion a trump issue, but you failed to mention that his succinct defense of conservatism did not include “gay” or “sex”.

  3. Zrim says:

    RSC, I’ve never had any trouble with the historical and philosophical connections. But what I’m still waiting for are the biblical and confessional connections. How does the American constitutional republic spring from the NT and TFU?

  4. Zrim says:

    Rube, give me some credit. Do I have a point at all?

  5. RubeRad says:

    Well, it’s an innovative thought to equate pro-lifery with age discrimination, but in the end I think it’s apples and oranges. Yes “death happens” in many circumstances, but abortion is the only circumstance where death is intended and unpunished. Even euthanasia is illegal I believe in almost all states.

  6. Zrim says:

    Rube, my point is that if conservatism is about resisting ideology and exercising nuance and restraint when it comes to various social, economic, and political issues then why the absolutism and blank check for pro-lifery that isn’t afforded nationalistic expansionism and bloated capitalism? Why conservative when it comes to “military adventurism” but neo-con when it comes to the so-called right-to-life?

  7. RubeRad says:

    conservatism is about resisting ideology

    I have another post in me (rather a quote/link) that is about exactly that. Can’t believe it hasn’t shown up on CO yet.

  8. I find myself agreeing with Alan Jacobs on being a conservative. I am neither a Republican (for the same reasons listed above) and definitely not a no-nothing idiot Democrat. I was in the military (jumped out of planes for four years) and was never deluded into thinking that I was spreading democracy!

  9. David says:


    Jacobs makes some apt points, but the problem is far more nuanced than appears. I would question whether the Republican Party can be “conservative,” and more importantly if those things which animate what Mr Jacobs finds to be offensive about the GOP is really all that conservative. When has military adventurist policies “conservative”? Because the media portrayed George W Bush as an arch conservative and so everything he did was oh-so conservative. Sorry, but the media isn’t the litmus test for properly defined classical liberalism, i.e., American conservativism. No consistent conservative uses federal spending on domestic problems like the Bush adminitrarion, and no conservative percieves war as a secular form of cultural sanctification-or that individual desire for freedom can be understood without the notion that to allow others (not simply oneself) requires philsophical presuppositions that are inherent or not-and if not, guns and war will not create the inherent idea of individual sovereignty in the eyes of the state protected by enumerated powers hemming in the state from making value judgements on things external; or spiritual.

    Also, when has a dyed in the wool conservatives not had a problem with crony-capitalism and the like? Alas, the media has called Rick Santorum an arch conservative, but when it comes to domestic spending, and government in the bedroom of citizens, Santorum is not a conservative, but a fundementalist/paleo-proggressive in the guise of a Woodrow Wilson or William Jennings Bryan. That’s not conservatism. It sure isn’t the kind of conservatism which animated William F Buckley, Jr. and Frank Meyer in the founding of The National Review, and it sure was not the kind of “arch conservatism” which animated Barry Goldwater’s sentorial career-or his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1964.

    Better to see the GOP as a political party only; which is conservative when led and championed by real conservatives, instead of charlatans, who think because they are “traditionalist” means they are conservatives. But the two are different. Indeed, a truly classical liberal society will upset many of the idols traditionalists cling to, and as it were, are afraid of-like societal change; modes of behavior being good in some areas, bad in others. That’s the cost of a free society. A free society means you get people like Machen and Warfield, but you also get people like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. You get Albert Murray, and you get knuckleheads like Barry Obama. That’s the compromise and conservative action always seeks to animate and protect those freedoms which give rise to a multi-layered, multicultural society; with Burkean platoons and islands of separations preserved because government is limited. That means there will be a lesbien club for females who love dogs. But there will also be the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. And the confessional Lutheran church, and even the Roman Catholic Church.

    What many “conversatived” admist us today in the GOP think is that conservative simply is an adjective; but political conservativism is wholly different. It’s a preservation of classsical liberalism and that philosophy’s documentation in these United States called the U.S. Constitution. When conservatives of that stripe populate the GOP-or any political party in mass-certainly, we see quite a bit of expression in policy of classical liberalism. Our modern context does not afford such realities, but because all good conservatism “submits to reality” (Burke, Buckley) we are no seeing a staunch retreat from what Mr Jacobs deems so offensive. It will take time. Earthly battles ever do, but there are hints things are moving slowly, but surely, in the right direction. Are there still large problems in the GOP? Of course.

    But there are in DNC as well. They’re just a little more ideologically consistent is all.

    Lastly, conservatives have to understand they’re not traditionalist. If we were, we’d be comfy in the Klu Klux Klan, or the Dixie-crats. All believed in a large imprint of the federal government but where “culturally conservative.” Meaning, they wanted “niggers like myself” on the bottom always; and themselves on top-they were afraid of change. Minus the racism aspect-I’ve found Democrats to be more racist than GOP’ers-So-called “conservatives” of the Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum vareity (which means an awful lot of the “conservative base” has what they are “conserving” (classical liberalism as opposed to traditionalism/relgio-evangelicalism) completely backwards.

    Maybe that made some sense. Or, ah, maybe it didn’t. Nice post however.

  10. David says:


    Also, political conservatism is not simply exercising restraint, Zrim-it’s a preservation of 18th century liberalism. It restrains the state, not the individual.

    The light of Nature restrains the indvidual, and coming from Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and John Locke, conservatism has always benefited from the drama of the history of human conduct. What that conduct has shown is that good intentions and the need to impose final authorities via the state (or imposing value judgments outside of inalienable rights) leads to tyrannical leadership; be it godless, ecclesial, or purely Democratic-which is why we do not have a pure democracy, but a representative republic.

    Political conservatism must be understood as far more complicated than bare restraint. For its implimentation-as the American experiment illustrates-is teeming diversities and large areas of freedom fe socities would call restraining-or being restrained. Like religious liberty, freedom of speech, and private property rights-which many nations and countries do not find wafting of “restraint” at all. And that has-more than other societies-produced a quality of life more removed from status or class, then others; producing unprecedented wealth and opportunity for large percentages of peoples, and also protected an ordered liberty. Are there dislocations? Of course. Are there large problems? Of course. It’s still a better system than having government run everything which has (especially the black community) begun to atrophy much of the ligaments of the country’s structure.

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